While the experience of feeling like an ‘imposter’ is clearly widespread and at times suffocating, I had, until recently, struggled to take it seriously. I considered it simply an unfortunate and restrictive lack of confidence. That has changed.

Where I currently work, at Tigerspike, we have a wonderful community of women who support one another professionally, getting together each month or so to discuss topics of interest.

Our most recent conversation was focussed on Imposter syndrome, with three folks sharing their experiences of professional anxiety and inadequacy. As all these sessions have been, it was a wonderfully invigorating time — for many, a time where they experienced that deep exhale of ‘I’m not alone in my experience’.

Notably, a couple of our speakers shared how their ethnocultural background played into their Imposter Syndrome and the sense that they somehow shouldn’t be where they are, shouldn’t be doing what they are doing. Imposters because of their skills, their skin color and their sex. They talked about familial, cultural and societal expectation.

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This was the first clue to the connection between specific societal expectations and Imposter Syndrome. That there is a relationship between what we were told we were supposed to do and be as children, and how we felt as adults about what we did and who we were. It feels like a no brainer now that I write it down.

But I didn’t make all these connections at the time. In fact — before, during and after the session, I had a disquieting thought. As I read about Imposter Syndrome and listened to these women’s stories, my immediate reaction was:

‘I don’t think I have it, I don’t have Imposter Syndrome!’

So you don’t think you’re an imposter

Without pathologising too much (there is some controversy about Imposter Syndrome and whether it exists at all — not my focus here), my understanding is that Imposter Syndrome is experienced predominantly as anxiety. Anxiety about being found out, it being discovered that you aren’t what people think you are. At it’s worst this anxiety can be consuming and crippling.

I definitely do not have this.

I do not worry about being found out. I know what I know, and no more. I don’t worry that if people knew the detail of what I do and don’t know and my experience, that they would think less of me. In fact I think they would think more.

At the same time, I often think that others are imposters, pretenders and ‘charmers’. It’s one of my pet hates, hence I actively avoid it, priding myself on presenting an accurate and measured depiction of myself.

After having this realisation — that I didn’t have imposter syndrome, I immediately felt guilt and sadness.

All of sudden I am the outsider in this group of women with whom I strongly identify, and who I have deeply connected with. It’s incredible the ways we find to feel shame.

I set that shame aside — it’s a strength of mine, as someone without imposter syndrome 😇 and put the interesting thoughts to the back of my mind to simmer — which is of course where the best thinking happens 😉

A psychotherapy connection

A few weeks later someone shared with me a paper they were reading about therapists and the rates they choose to charge their clients. The author, Kachina Myers [1] reflected on the factors that influence confidence in charging and perception of value, and the very brief mention of Imposter Syndrome was enlightening.

Myers had this to say with respect to African Americans who have familial or cultural values of interdependence and collectivity, that might be at odds with western values of individuality and autonomy.

The two systems can seem at odds with one another. Comas-Diaz and Greene (1994) have detailed that women of color who achieve professional success and status frequently feel a great deal of guilt and anxiety about that success. Often these women experience themselves as “imposters” (p.367) so as to deny their own desire and the ambition that got them where they are. After all, if their success was only luck and they are “faking it” then they do not have to reconcile the fact that they have internalized the dominant value system’s emphasis on external and independent achievement.

The author then points out that this value dissonance is common in white women also, not simply because of ethnocultural expectations, but gendered ones:

Imposter feelings in successful white women also abound. As I discuss later, for many women there is still a felt conflict between femininity and ambition, as if professional accomplishment were a masculine virtue. In this case the anxiety of feeling like an imposter can be a defense against the shame of failing to achieve an ideal femininity.

How incredible!

That women would rather consider themselves an imposter, than accept that they are truly successful and accomplished, as this might indicate acceptance that they are not adequately ‘feminine’, and an open rejection of not living up to the expectations on women in their context.

When seen this way imposter syndrome is not just lack of confidence and performance anxiety — it is yet another expression of the internalization of the feminine ideal — a denial of who we are and what we want.

Even for those who consciously breakout of the feminine ideal, they subconsciously judge themselves for doing so.

I have certainly experienced that.

While I may not live in constant fear of being uncovered as a fake, I certainly have felt the judgement of others (both spoken and unspoken) around my professional and personal choices. Choosing to send our children to childcare, choosing to work full time, choosing to not be the only one in our marriage who knows what our kids like to eat, when they need to go to bed, and what day of the week they have to return library books.

At times, it was a very poorly kept secret that this was less than what was expected of me as a mother. I’m just lucky that because of other protective factors, this wasn’t able to extend to an Imposter Syndrome at work.

An antidote?

If Imposter Syndrome in women exists in preference of acknowledging that we reject the feminine ideal, then what is it anti-dote? If it is in fact guilt over failure to fill stereotypes — this would explain the gendered difference, even though men also often feel like ‘imposters it is for missing a different mark — then how to we eradicate or lessen it?

This angle shows us that we can not eradicate the anxieties described as Imposter Syndrome simply by talking one another up and highlighting each other’s strengths (though we must also do these things often). We must also dismantle and unpick feminine (and masculine) ideals, including those particular to our individual cultures, such that failure to live up to them is no longer the greatest failure we could suffer.

This non trivial exercise requires a rather unpopular questioning of our family structures and expectations. Good luck to us, and thank god there isn’t an imposter among us.

[1] Myers, Kachina, Show Me the Money (The “Problem” of) the Therapist’s Desire, Subjectivity, and Relationship to the Fee, 2008

Naomi Schofield

Head of Strategy & Design,ANZ

Naomi Schofield

Head of Strategy & Design,ANZ